Custody Challenges for New Blind Parents

Baby Mikaela has recently been returned to blind Kansas City parents Erika Johnson and Blake Sinnett. She was taken away from the couple only a few days after her birth. A lactation nurse felt that the couple was unfit to care for the child when Johnson, the young mom, fumbled at her initial attempt to nurse her baby. Mikaela is the couple’s first child. After two months, she has finally been returned to Johnson and Sinnett. Now, breast-feeding is no longer an option, the couple has been robbed of precious time with their new daughter and they are pursuing legal action

Sighted and visually impaired parents from around the country rallied to support the couple. Kansas City moms expressed their outrage on this parenting blog. These mothers wonder why the lactation nurse did not offer some guidance for the 23-year-old mom. This is, after all, the purpose of a lactation consult in the obstetrics ward.

A few years ago, similar snap judgments were made by hospital staff in the Bay Area. The trouble started when the blind mom in this case requested that a neonatal nurse pay a couple of house calls after the family went home, to ensure that the new baby showed no signs of jaundice. Instead of replying to this accomodation, hospital staff called county officials, who then demanded that the couple sign paperwork to give up custody of the child. Margie Donovan, blindness advocate and LightHouse board member, stepped in to assist the couple in asserting their rights. Listen to the NPR story here.

This week, Disability Rights California  announced that California Senator Roderick Wright has proposed bill SB 1188, which adds a section to the California Family Code to protect disabled parents from biased custody decisions. Attorney Margaret Johnson, who is advocacy director for Disability Rights California and a disabled parent herself, said, “Parenting is a fundamental right and this bill will help to ensure that parents with disabilities do not face discrimination. By increasing the burden of proof on the parent who raises disability as an issue, rights of disabled parents are protected and unnecessary litigation is avoided.” The LightHouse hopes that this new bill will go a long way towards creating a more hospitable environment for blind parents in local hospitals.

Not all labor and delivery staff take such discriminatory actions. The LightHouse is pleased to report that in recent weeks, we have been in contact with both California Pacific Medical Center and Kaiser obstetrics staff. They let us know that they offer classes, including CPR, to all parents – sighted and blind. The LightHouse was happy to provide both CPMC and Kaiser with Braille copies of their discharge info, which includes tips for new mothers and fathers.

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